Byron Samuels still refers members of his team by their numbers, and sometimes has to pause to make sure he’s thinking of the right young man.
Samuels, in his first year as head coach of Florida A&M’s basketball team, is in a unique situation. All 11 of his players are brand new to FAMU, and many have never played collegiate basketball. Samuels said he knows rebuilding the team will be difficult, but right now, he just wants fans to know who his players are.
“Who they are? I’ll leave that up to you guys,” Samuel said. “I’d just like to say – this is what I tell them in recruiting: We just want to be good guys. We want to work our tails off and make people proud of us with our effort. I don’t want us to be perfect but we just want to be good guys. We’re the good guys.”
The men’s team basketball team was forced to completely rebuild after head coach Clemon Johnson was fired, four seniors graduated and every remaining member of the team transferred following the announcement a one-year postseason ban due to the program’s low Academic Progress Rating (APR).
Samuels said building a team from nothing has been equal parts fun and challenging. Samuels, a graduate of UNC Asheville, has been a head coach a three different schools, including conference-rival Hampton (1995-1997).
“I just started making phone calls to coaches in Tampa and all over the country,” he said. “Certainly people knew we needed players. Having coached for 26 years, I was fortunate to have some contacts. So it was just following up on contacts.”
FAMU’s men’s team opens on the road Friday at Clemson, then has eight road games before playing its first home date on Dec. 19. Last season the Rattlers opened with nine of the team’s 11 first games on the road. That team finished 14-18 and 8-8 in the MEAC.
The nine-game road trip to start the season includes stops in six states, a fact not lost on Samuels. He said the first thing he did after he was hired by Kellen Winslow was try and change the team’s schedule.
The Rattlers will face off against New Mexico State – a team that earned a No. 13-seed in the NCAA tournament last year – during the road trip on Nov. 26. The group won’t play its first conference game until its contest against South Carolina State in Orangeburg S.C.
“It’s unfortunate we inherited that schedule,” he said.
“It’s not fair to the student athletes – really not fair to the university. Not necessarily the opening two games, but for two weeks after that we’re completely on the road in the middle of the academic year. I’m concerned about them academically. I’m concerned about their well-being — 14 days on the road … you get tired of people after two or three days.”
On the court, the Rattlers will be led by 6-foot-6 senior forward Quentin Bastian and juniors Jermaine Ruttley and Jerran Foster. Bastian actually played for Samuels at Hillsborough Community College and Samuels said calling the senior was one of the first things he did when trying to build the team.
Foster said redshirt-junior Malcolm Bernard has been a leader for the team, despite being injured and ineligible for this season.
“This isn’t (Bernard’s) first road trip,” he said. “He knows his way around. He’s a D-1 player. He’s definitely helped us out a lot.”
Samuels said he’s still looking for this new team’s identity. The NCAA sanctions also include reduced time to practice, giving the new 11 players less time to really gel with each other. Samuels said during the team’s first few practices, he didn’t give any orders and let the players get a feel for each other without extra pressure from a coach.
“Teams have had 28, maybe 30 practices if you include preseason stuff,” he said. “So that has put us behind. Right now, looking at some of the other programs that I’ve been in and teams I’ve coached, we’ve probably had two or three other defenses in at this point. We’ve certainly had two or three other things in offensively at this point.
“It’s a challenge. But we can sit here and we can whine about and make an excuse about it. Or we can just try to find a way — which is what we’re going to do — to make something out of it without being, ‘Woe is me.'”
Women’s team also rebuilding
LeDawn Gibson’s team is coming off a 2013-2014 season that included 17-14 overall record and an appearance in the MEAC tournament quarterfinals, but the sixth-year head coach of the women’s basketball team said this year is about regrouping.
The Rattlers enter this season without point guard and MEAC Player of the Year Jasmine Grice, who led the nation in steals (119) and the MEAC in scoring (25.2 points per game). The dynamic guard also led the Rattlers in rebounds.
Gibson said replacing that kind of production will be difficult, and multiple players will have to contribute to fill the void left by Grice’s departure. Nine new faces will have the chance to step up now that eight players — including Grice — are gone.
“This is a rebuilding year for us,” Gibson said.
“We’re just looking for the girls to get some continuity and get to know each other on the court. They get along well off the court, they’ll have to bring that to the court. We have a lot of young, new players.”
The season is also a chance for senior guard Taneka Rubin to shine. Rubin was the team’s second leading scoring with 12.6 points per game and also led the Rattlers in blocks with 16.
“The biggest challenge is just having a whole new team,” Rubin said. “We have to relearn each other. We have to get the team chemistry together. That’s the biggest challenge. Once we get that together we’ll start rolling.”
The women’s basketball team plays its first game Friday against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.